Barack Obama's recommended reads
Barack Obama's recommended reads

By now, it should be pretty obvious that Barack Obama is a huge reader. Once or twice a year, the former President of the United States releases lists of his favourite books that inspire us to add to our own to-read pile.

His recommendations range from novels of all styles to essay collections, non-fiction tackling the biggest issues of our times to biographies and much more.

Ahead of the release of his hugely anticipated first volume of memoirs, A Promised Land, we've rounded up our selection of books endorsed by Obama. 

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)

During his first presidential run, Barack Obama was asked which one book he would take with him to the White House. His answer: Team of Rivals.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s landmark work is a fascinating study of how Abraham Lincoln’s decision to assemble a cabinet that included his political rivals shaped one of the most significant periods in the United States.

Speaking to a journalist in 2008, the then-Senator Obama called it a “remarkable study in leadership”, so perhaps it’s no surprise he took Lincoln’s experiences to heart when assembling his own cabinet.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

Bernardine Evaristo has been writing critically-acclaimed, award-winning books for over two decades and last year’s Booker Prize win rightfully catapulted her writing to a whole new readership.

Showing the beauty in difference and the multiplicity that holds a single identity together, Girl, Woman, Other weaves together an extraordinary tapestry of twelve interconnected Black lives in present-day Britain.

Rounding off the year with his list of his recent favourite reads, Barack Obama named Girl, Woman, Other as one of the books that made the year “a little brighter for [him]”.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the former president turned to James Baldwin’s always-timely words to “understand the pain and anger behind the protests” that followed.

Speaking about The Fire Next Time, Obama said, “It’s frightening how James Baldwin can lay out a reality 50 years ago that sounds like it was written yesterday.”

A seminal work on racial injustice, this book contains two intensely personal essays – one in the form of a letter to Baldwin's teenage nephew, written on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the other an exploration of his early life in Harlem and the intersection of race and religion.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)

1922, Moscow: a Bolshevik tribunal brands Count Alexander Rostov an unrepentant aristocrat and sentences him to indefinite house arrest.

To add insult to injury, he can't enjoy the luxurious comfort to which he’s accustomed and is instead confined to a small attic room in the Hotel Metropolis while, outside the building, Russia goes through some of its most dramatic changes.

Not long before A Gentleman in Moscow made an appearance on Barack Obama’s 2017 end of year round-up, it was also announced that the book will be adapted into a television series starring Kenneth Branagh.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Between 1915 and 1970 almost six million Black citizens left the southern States in search of a better life in the north and west of the country.

In her definitive account of this period, Isabel Wilkerson meticulously chronicles stories of exhausting cross-country journeys and the hope of starting over.

When awarding her the National Humanities Medal in 2016, Barack Obama said: “More than 1,200 people told [Isabel] their families' stories of heartbreak and endurance and ultimately overcoming – stories they often found too painful to share even with their own children. And through it all, she had to conquer the enormity of her task and prove wrong the doubts of others. And because she did, one of the most important chapters in our history is told in a book any young person can pick up and read.”

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

Saeed and Nadia are young adults living in an unnamed city in the midst of a war. As daily life becomes particularly dangerous, the pair hear rumours about mysterious doors appearing in the city and are surprised to discover the truth.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, Mohsin Hamid’s novel is a short but deeply-affecting story. Its commentary on migration feels particularly relevant in our present but reading this book also feels like reading a beautifully-written, timeless fable.

After its release the film rights were snapped up by producer/director duo the Russo Brothers, with the Obamas on board as producers and Riz Ahmed set to star as Saeed.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi (2016)

In this National Book Award-winner, Ibram X. Kendi explores the entire history of racist ideas, from 15th century Europe to present-day USA, and their power to shape the course of history.

Somehwat surprisingly, Kendi reveals, racist ideas didn't come from ignorance or hatred but were devised by some of the world's greatest thinkers to justify or reinforce existing discrepancies in many areas of life.

Writing during last year’s Black History Month, Barack Obama shared a non-fiction reading list to “help to provide some essential context about the challenges that many people of color face every day… [these works can] be fuel on our journey toward a more fair and just future for all of our sons and daughters”.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

In 2015 and, it seemed, for several years after, The Girl on the Train was the one book everyone was talking about.

Not since Gone Girl, released three years prior, had a book created so much conversation but Paula Hawkins’ debut novel certainly captured the attention of readers worldwide.

The story follows Rachel: still reeling from the end of her marriage, her daily commute through suburban neighbourhoods offers her the chance to lose herself in the more picturesque lives of others – until, one day, she sees something almost unbelievable.

Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark (2017)

With many of us now au fait with using voice assistants like Siri, owning home devices such as ‘smart’ speakers or thermostats or just tuning into something that Netflix has recommended you watch next, it's not hard to see how artificial intelligence already plays a huge part in our daily lives.

In this eye-opening read, which featured on Barack Obama’s 2017 reading list alongside A Gentleman in Moscow, MIT professor Max Tegmark explores into the many ways AI might affect our lives in the next era of civilization – a truly technological age – while ensuring it remains beneficial to humanity.

The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016)

Topping Barack Obama's 2017 reading list, The Power imagines a world where young women develop the ability to electrocute men at will.

With their newfound power, the women in this world start to lose their fear. The fear of walking home alone at night, of wondering whether they were “asking for it”, of harassment and oppression in its myriad forms. And with the loss of that fear, the begin to remake the world in their image.

In the same way Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale remains as relevant now as when it was first written, The Power will remain an essential feminist classic for years to come.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

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